Those were the exact words used by one of my clients after finishing her last set of goblet squats. I couldn’t help but smile, empathizing with her pain as I had trouble walking around that day from my squat session the day before.

No one likes squats. You have to be out of your mind to say you do. If you don’t have a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach approaching a squat session, chances are it sucks. Serious squatters should know what I’m talking about. They hurt all over and take a tremendous amount out of you physically, mentally and emotionally. If you’ve never felt this way after squatting, you need to ask yourself how much effort you put into your training.

Would you willingly stand in front of a speeding truck going 70 miles an hour on an open highway? Would you leap off a tall building with nothing but the concrete below as a landing mat? Would you volunteer as a tackling dummy for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense? If you answered no to all these questions, you’re obviously not crazy, so why do you continue to put yourself through another day of heavy squats? I don’t know about you, but the day after a strenuous squat workout, my body feels like it’s been in a car wreck, and sometimes taking shots from a 300-lb defensive lineman sounds a little more appealing than enduring another squat workout. Even during routines when I’m staring down at a puddle of sweat and tears, I wonder why I do this.

You can hit it from the back or the front

I’ve been witness to a growing debate as to which variation of the squat is more effective—front or back. While they each serve their own purpose, the truth is they both suck. You should be using both at some point in your training. If you’re a bodybuilder, you want both to hit different parts of your legs and get as much muscle development as you can. If you’re an athlete, you need the posterior chain development that back squats can offer. However, the mobility and core strength you get in the front squat is almost second to none.

They’re both effective, but they both suck in the sense that they’re both grueling versions of the king of exercises. Back squats make your whole body ache while front squats can send your core running for the hills, leaving what’s left of your fragile body behind. It’s funny how the best thing for you is the thing you want the least. It’s been that way since we were kids and will continue to be that way until we’re old and grey. However, there are some lessons that stay true no matter how old you are—eat your vegetables, pay your taxes, floss every day, and squat heavy.

I can deal with choking down broccoli until I’m blue in the face and paying Uncle Sam some of my own hard earned money, but squatting heavy weights is just plain cruel. Life is funny that way in a sick and twisted sort of way. Some days I just hate doing squats, and even though they are arguably the best exercise, if done correctly, for anyone looking to lose fat, gain muscle, or be a better athlete, I just can’t stand them some days. If you have to ask why, you’re either not doing them right or you’re not doing enough.

Boxes, chains, bands—oh my!

Not only does squatting with the sound of heavy chains against the floor look cool—not that the look of an exercise is all you should be looking for (but let’s face it, it is)—it’s an amazing technique to trick your muscles and better your performance in the long run.

Used often for athletes looking to increase leg power, box squats are an excellent way to enforce good technique because they teach you to use your hips and fully engage the posterior chain when you squat. By adding accommodating resistance in the form of chains and bands, you will see your squat numbers and your total body power shoot through the roof. Don’t believe me? Read it from the man himself in a very informative T-Muscle article titled Accommodating Resistance.

For those who still haven’t gotten it right

While I could give you a detailed anatomical breakdown of the squat, I understand most of you have a job, a girlfriend, and a life. With that in mind, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version of what you need to be focusing on when you’re squatting.

Keep the core tight: It’s simple. If you have a weak core, you have a weak squat, and thus a weak body. Squats are one of the best tests for core strength because safe execution hinges on whether or not you can keep your core stable. This is accomplished through several drills that you must keep in mind before you even step inside your squat rack.

First, imagine trying to make your belly button touch your spine. If this is done correctly, you should look like those fools at the beach who try to pump up their chest and make their waist look as small as possible. Ridiculous as it may sound, it’s the perfect start to a great squat. From there, you have your own weightlifting belt that should keep you stable enough to handle a punch to the stomach. Secondly, keep a steady arch in your back. For those who slept through anatomy class, remember that the lower back is the other half of the core or the often neglected little brother to the big brother abs as I like to put it. If at any point your back starts to round out, you’re in serious trouble. Trust me when I say that’s a bad sign. But if you follow the first tip strictly, the second tip should practically take care of itself.

Third, embed the bar into your traps. After coming out of the hole, that’s when you want to push your head back (don’t jerk the neck) against the bar. You should feel as though the bar is ready to become part of your skin. That’s how tightly it should be kept to your body.

Hit the hole: Speaking of hitting the hole, if you’re not squatting with your thighs at least parallel to the ground or lower, you’re not squatting. There, I said it. Too many times I’ve watched guys load up plate after plate on the bar only to see them come up higher and higher in their stance. There’s a guy at my gym who quarter squats the hell out of 405 lbs because he never took the time to develop a full squat. He just likes squatting big weights, as he told me later (more on the second point later). It’s actually embarrassing to even write something like that.

So here’s the take home message—squat low. If you’re not executing ass to grass squats on a regular basis (and you have the ability to do so), shame on you. Check your ego as the weight doesn’t matter in this case. It’s the effort. I’d have more respect for a guy who could squat 135 lbs but took the time to do it right every rep than the guy quarter squatting with 450 lbs. I noticed that from a lifter at a gym I used to work at. He grinded and sweated his way through a set of ten with a single 45-lb plate on each side. I was so inspired by the effort, I had to walk over and just shake his hand for his performance.

P.S.: That’s when you know you’re not in a hardcore lifting environment. If seeing a full squat becomes such a rarity that you can count on one hand the numbers of times you’ve seen it done, you need a more hard core gym.

Check the ego: This goes nicely with the previous story about our quarter depth squatter. It took me until I was 22 years old before I hit a single, clean 405-lb back squat. This at a body weight of 170 lbs. While most people look for the big bench numbers, I wanted a big squat. Anyway, the point I make here is that you need patience with your squat if you’re going to progress and reap its many benefits. If you don’t respect the precision and diligence associated with the squat, it will make you pay.

Make sure your form is tight and the gains will follow. Don’t concern yourself with the weight, as a poorly executed squat is worse than not squatting at all. Just because you leg press 1000 lbs doesn’t mean that display of strength will translate over to the squat, as your core will tell you. A 1000-lb leg press shows you have strong legs, but squatting over twice your body weight shows you have a strong body.

The next level of pain

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics of why your squat may suck and what you should be doing about it, we move on to those people who actually have been following the above advice and are now stuck in another dreaded plateau. While 3 X 10, 10 X 3, and 5 X 5 are all well and good, if you’re an experienced lifter, you’ve been there and done that. With that in mind, here are some routines—one you know, one you may have tried, one reserved for the bravest and boldest amongst you, and one that will send you into a full body contusion just by looking at it (ala The Ring). Keep in mind that as far as routines are concerned, these are plateau busters or good ole’ shock therapy at its finest. They shouldn’t be used for more than a few weeks at a time before moving to a more sane routine. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, on to the good stuff.

German volume training (GVT)

One hundred squats—it just sounds insane! While 100 reps of any compound exercise sounds ridiculous, you really have to give this one a second and third thought before attempting it. Obviously, the program doesn’t call for massive amounts of weight, but it’s as mentally taxing as it is physically.

Program: 10 X 10

Rest: 60–90 seconds between sets

Intensity: approximately 50–60% 1RM

Frequency:Once a week

20-rep squats

This is without a doubt the most physically, mentally, soul-crushing, squat routine I’ve ever experienced. It’s an amazing routine for anyone looking to put on muscle fast. An old school routine that doesn’t get its dues today, the “super squats” routine is like that old baller you see hanging around the playground. He may not have the fancy moves or the quickness that the young kids have today, but challenge him to a first to five pick-up basketball game and he will school anybody who dare challenges him. This routine is also referenced as “breathing squats” because by the time you get to your twelfth or thirteenth rep, you will need at least a couple deep breaths between reps to get yourself going again.

Program: 1 X 20

Rest: n/a

Intensity: approximately 60–65% 1RM

Frequency: Twice a week

8 X 8

The last time I did this routine, I staggered off to the men’s room after lying on one of the nearby benches gasping for air thinking that I was going to start throwing up everywhere. But when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I found that I had broken a blood vessel in one of my eyes, leaving it bloodshot red for the rest of the day (needless to say I was able to go back to my training session that day without having to wait for another piece of equipment). No wonder I was getting so many stares in the men’s room.

What else do you expect from a routine made by the famous Vince Gironda. This routine isn’t for beginners. It’s not even for seasoned veterans. It’s for insane lifters who want to gain some serious size or shed a ton of fat while putting themselves through the worst pain possible. You might think, GVT is a higher volume program so that’s probably more effective. While GVT is higher in volume, 8 X 8 leaves people in the dust with its super short rest periods. How short? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 15–30 seconds (though you want to start conservatively by shooting for around 45 seconds first and work your way down), which isn’t even enough time to rack the barbell or get a sip of Surge in. I wasn’t joking when I said this was for the insane lifter.

The weight you use for this routine will have to be lower than that of GVT, but it may take one or two workouts to find the right weight. Aim for 50 percent of your 1RM the first time around and see if you can complete all 64 reps. Depending on the “ease” of the routine, you can increase the weight at your discretion the next time. Don’t make it complicated. If you get through it without noticeable fatigue, the weight is way too light. If you barely get through the last rep before passing out, you’re probably at just about the right weight.

Program: 8 X 8

Rest: 30–50 sec between sets

Intensity: approximately 50–60% 1RM

Frequency: Twice a week

There you have it—Shock Therapy, Volume 1: The Squat. These routines aren’t for beginners, quarter squatters, or lifters who shy away from real pain. I’ve tried them all, and they were all brutal. The only questions is, which one are you man enough to try?

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